How to deal with homesickness while living abroad? (And when can I give in to it and go home?
December 21, 2009 5:32 PM   Subscribe

I've been happily living abroad for three months, and all of a sudden I'm extremely homesick and I want to come home. I want to get past this, but how?

(Apologies for the length. It's a complicated issue for me. The questions are at the end. Thanks. :)

I've been living in Buenos Aires for 3 months now, fulfilling a long-time dream to live abroad. I'm settled in with a small group of friends I see a few times a week (fellow swing dancers), moving to an apartment with two nice roommates this week, and I've pretty much moved past the just-moved-here distractions and into regular, mundane life.

So for the past week, I've been hit by intense, depression-level homesickness. I'm missing my family the most I have in many years, probably because I'm in the thick of spending my first Christmas ever away from my hometown and my family, which is very sad and a even a little scary for me. (It is too expensive to go back, and I knew that when I decided to come here.) Christmas is not religious for us, but it's a ritual that is the cornerstone of my year. We come together and it wraps up this year and starts off the next one. To stave off the loneliness, I've been good about making plans with friends for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and I will video Skype with my family.

Despite this, the homesickness persists. I cycle between feeling normal and feeling really down. The down time is usually in the afternoon, when I'm home alone and the long, lonely day is stretched out ahead of me. The up time is usually in the evening and night when I have plans. (Or even tonight, when I don't!) What I'm going through now reminds me of the way my mood cycled one summer, seven years ago, when I had major depression. Overall I feel more stable and happy now than then, during my "up" times, but the down times are similar. I'm sad, filled with hopelessness and grief, and I cry so hard that I practically burst out of my skin. My perspective gets skewed and I don't believe any of the logic behind my decision to live here. I get desperate and I just want to end the pain and be home with my family RIGHT NOW. (Even though Mom & I both agree that really, this should be a good experience for our family to go experience a Christmas when one of us isn't there.)

During the ups I feel pretty normal and in agreement with the logic that brought me here to live. But I do feel more tired, emotionally and physically, and I just don't have as much energy to be enthusiastic about things. (Usually I'm quite bubbly and smiley.) My friends notice and have been asking me if I'm OK, even when I'm in the best part of my day.

The whole thing is making me question how long I want to or should stay here. I came here to improve my Spanish and to live internationally for awhile. (So that I will have had that life experience.) When I'm feeling up, I have the strength to keep pushing on towards those goals but when I'm down, I don't care anymore. I just want to be home. I want to give up trying to stay strong. In both states of mind I am looking forward to settling into a community for the long term and working my way up in a new career path (community organizing or something similar). These are things I've been looking forward to since before I left and in fact they inspired me to live abroad because I wasn't ready to settle down until I did this first.

I'm sorry for writing so much here. I guess what I'm looking for here is some insight and guidance from people who've been through this before. Why did homesickness hit, what did you miss, and how did you cope with it? Do you have advice for me as I try to overcome it? Both during the holidays, and in general? And at what point is it OK to decide to go home? I don't want to give up too soon but I also don't want to be unnecessarily hard on myself and force myself to stay here unhappily. Thanks in advance for any advice.
posted by inatizzy to Travel & Transportation (26 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: (One other thing - I had been planning this move a long time, telling family and friends that I wanted to stay at least a year because I really want to live here and not just be an extended vacationer. I'm worried that if I leave after a short time, my big plan and adventure will be looked upon by others as a failure.)
posted by inatizzy at 5:38 PM on December 21, 2009

Do not stay home alone, find the nearest bar, park, resturant or beach and spend the money to be with and meet people to while away the hours with. If being alone makes you lonely don't be alone.
posted by Rubbstone at 5:40 PM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You need to know that this is normal. There's a cycle to homesickness, and you're just hitting the "I'm settled in and life is wonderful and I can speak Spanish and understand everyone and oh my god I want my mommy and my teddy bear!". It sucks, because you get this huge down, and it usually coincides (like in your case) with the holidays. I know I went through the exact same thing when I lived in Peru for a year, and all I can tell you is that it gets much much better.
You'll get through this. The homesickness will slowly go away, and before you know it you'll be feeling like Buenos Aires really is a second home. And then it'll be time to go home and you won't want to leave.
You just need to remember: it's textbook homesickness. Before I left on my exchange, they showed us this cute little graph showing what we could expect our moods to be like. And I swear, we all ended up being homesick exactly when the graph predicted!
Push through, talk to your family on Skype, spend all your time outside with friends, and I promise it'll get better. Just don't go home!
posted by snoogles at 5:56 PM on December 21, 2009

Find something, a flower, a food, a material etc that smells of home. Scent goes right to the core of our memory system. Trust me, it will help.

I'd now like to take this opportunity to apologise to the florist in Seattle for stealing a small sprig of eucalyptus leaves from your display each time I walked by your shop
posted by Kerasia at 5:56 PM on December 21, 2009

Best answer: I studied abroad twice, and both times, around 2-3 months is when the homesickness hit. My sister experienced the same thing. In my experience, it lasted a month or two (I know, it feels like forever!) and then everything stabilized and I loved where I was again. Look into culture shock, and realize you're totally normal!

It seems to me like you're handling it well. Call your family on the holiday, and spend time with friends, and enjoy the different-ness of the experience. You'll look back on it as a great experience, I'm sure. Even if it's not the best holiday you've ever had, remember there will be another one next year to look forward to.

Give it a month or two more before you call it quits, but realize that you can AT ANY TIME, and most people will be envious of your experience and bravery. No one will think of you as a failure. Really. Anyone who's been there will empathize.
posted by ruby.aftermath at 6:06 PM on December 21, 2009

This happened to me! I was still in the country though. It happened when all my friends went home for summer vacation and I was left all alone.
My advice: Going out probably won't help you out too much if you are doing that alone, too. Find a way to meet people, and talk to people, and not just small talk with people whom you will never see again. And make plans.

I think making plans might be key.

I also found that when I personally couldn't stand it anymore, as soon as I made the plans and knew that I'd be going home, I felt a little better. Maybe you should say: If it doesn't get any better, I will go home in 4 months (give or take, to your liking). I think part of my problem was that I expected and I was expected to be happy there, and I thought I wouldn't encounter any problems, and when I did, it all piled on until I didn't care whether I got hit by a truck in the street or not.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 6:12 PM on December 21, 2009

Best answer: inatizzy,

I used to be a study abroad advisor, and all I can say is that homesickness is so, so common. Someone once told me that having homesickness in Paris was like dating the most popular person in school and wondering on a daily basis why it seems to suck.

There are a number of great online articles, like this if you google 'study abroad homesickness'.

Basically the holidays hit people hard - as does the 3 month period. You wonder why you're there, you wonder what you're missing - at home the quiet times are possibly you in your place with all of your things and a thousand familiar things right outside - who you could visit if you were bored. But abroad, down time can suck. Part of that is because - particularly if you're doing it in another language - you have to think all. the. time. And if you're not good with languages, that's even harder. After all, why are you even doing something like living abroad for an entire year? Was it really so important that it couldn't have been a semester stay? (and on, and on, ad nauseum).

I think one of the things that catches people off guard is that they don't realize that they will feel homesick, can't imagine why they'd feel homesick, and they think they aren't supposed to feel the way they are feeling. And they try not to. And they fail. And they then feel like failures. And they cycle down.

I think a nice reframing is that for many people, of course, of COURSE, you are going to feel homesick. Your home is probably a pretty lovely place with pretty great people who love and support you. Of course you're missing it. Badly. Learning how to buy food in flawless Spanish is never going to make up for that. But study abroad isn't necessarily supposed to be better than home. It's just different. Everything is different. You're just supposed to experience the different and see what that brings out for you over time. Perhaps a great appreciation for home. Perhaps an understanding of how to use the subjunctive. Perhaps a better sense of what is meaningful for you.

So if you stay: As for how people cope -I've seen people come up with one activity or area they want to develop themselves in areas important to them: one body, one mind, one spirit, one community activity that they will learn. I've seen people come up with short term, tangible goals. Like: I will have conversations with people where I practice the subjunctive. I will tell people I am doing so, and ask them to correct me. I will master the subjunctive. Or, I will join a (book, beer, tennis, hiking, tango) club, and learn how more about it. It's really important to connect with people, not places when you are abroad. They are the ones who will hug you, and go to movies with you, and either show you or explore Argentina with you. But often they do engage the world differently - because being abroad is deceptively tiring. Even not being able to go into a seven eleven and find the candy that you like can bring one to tears. So go out with friends anyway, and be the quiet one. Listen to the language. Be an anthropologist, and answer what the similarities are between BA and where you live. Find your favorite books in english and read them. Or watch familiar movies when you really need to relax. Have your family send you your favorite candy, and then share it with a friend in BA and say :This, these twizzlers right here - this is home. They'll think you're crazy, but who cares.

And if you go home early: That's fine too! Look, you wanted to go to BA to learn more about the language and yourself. Check! You've done that already. Think of yourself like Anne of Green Gables - in the miniseries she final statement upon returning to her hometown was something about how life isn't about where you go in the world, but what you bring to it, wherever you go.

If you want to, give yourself a month, or three to find out what happens to you once you begin to feel homesick. And if the answer is - well, I want to go home more, then go! If it's well, something else is happening, I wonder what this is, then stay!

I'm sorry I don't have time to read this over or edit this in the way I'd like - but I've got to get to dinner. So this is like a 'throw it on the wall' post. But please, don't be hard on yourself for feeling how you feel. Just explore the feeling. Homesickness is sort of an amazing - albeit unpleasant - feeling that many people never, ever feel. If you can, please try to limit beating yourself up about it, and just accept that you're feeling something known the world over, a common thread by many an intrepid traveler. If you can, think of it like a badge of honor - not because it will make you feel better, but because it's part of what many true travelers go through, regardless if they stay or return home.

Best of luck!
posted by anitanita at 6:13 PM on December 21, 2009 [10 favorites]

PS. snoogles: I kind of want to see that chart.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 6:13 PM on December 21, 2009

It's totally normal. It's discussed all over the internet (like here). Some people give rough timelines, but in general, I'd say six months is a good minimum before you decide you're not enjoying it enough to stay.

The usual advice is pretty broad - keep busy. Make a routine. Have regular contact with people where you are.
posted by jacalata at 6:15 PM on December 21, 2009

Oh my goodness, I was just talking to two friends last night, both of whom studied abroad, and they both said that it was just about three months in that homesickness hit them hard. Just know that it's perfectly normal.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:17 PM on December 21, 2009

Three really is a magic number!

I want to stress one thing in particular: lonely feelings abroad are normal. Ergo, people tend to experience them. So, if you're feeling that your homesickness is weird because none of your fellow expats seem out of sorts, don't. It's extremely likely that they're a little down--and in just as much a need of company as you.
posted by ElectricBlue at 6:35 PM on December 21, 2009

Like everyone said, it's totally normal. You say you're going to be there for a year, so maybe this advice won't help as much, but what I've done is to recreate my cherished family holidays over here with what is essentially my new family. If you can't make it home for the holidays, make where you are into home. It can actually be pretty liberating, finding a new way to celebrate something that you've always done in a certain place with certain people.

Things I'll always remember:

first Thanksgiving away from the giant family meal having Mexican food in Shanghai.

making my first turkey for thanksgiving for friends in Japan, using a toaster oven.

spending new year's eve at a temple in Japan.

Things I'll always regret:

Staying home alone my second year in Japan over winter vacation. All the people I knew went home for the holidays, and I did very little. I probably watched 30 dvds in that period. I wasted a chance to explore and get to see things on my own.

Take this chance to have a memorable Christmas, one that you'll cherish, rather than staying in and feeling sad. It's hard to take that first step, but once you do, you'll find you're enjoying being away more. The key to avoiding homesickness, I feel, is doing so much that's new and interesting that you don't have time to be homesick.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:42 PM on December 21, 2009

Best answer: The homesickness thing affects you negatively less the more you make your new place a home.

Three months in is a weird time: The vacation is over. Your neighborhood is explored. Your patience with all the cultural differences is worn away, often by the grating reality of the fact that at home, some things you didn't even think about are, objectively, better: Letters arrive. Dry cleaners exist. Heavy traffic is confined to certain hours. You can drink the water.

I teach English in a smallish regional city in Poland, though I'm from LA, and yeah - it's often like having landed on Mars. I have no Polish roots, and I speak just enough Polish to chat to a taxi driver and read billboards. It can be very, very socially isolating. My local friend pool is vanishingly tiny. And people are busy/traveling for the holidays anyway. The people I mostly associate with are other expats or our colleagues and families. If you'll permit a small digression into how those expat-local relationships work, I can hopefully make things a bit easier for you by putting people on a continuum between membership in two groups:

Group One: them being where you are is their first time really abroad for a long time. They are wide-eyed but easily exhausted. There is a quest for authentic experiences: each interaction or transaction is a new tick on a list of firsts: lots of local day-trips, lots of clubbing and nightlife.

But members' perspective can be a bit distorted - the banal becomes iconic. The lady at the kiosk who teaches you new words for the things you buy? A saint! The bus timetable? As unreadable as Chinese! Their friends at home (and maybe they, as well) view their choice to live abroad as either brave, or reckless, or indicative of some element of their personality: "oh, he was always into traveling!" "Rules" perceived subconsciously about local life stem from too little experience, and are often just wrong. Attempts to learn the local language are earnest but rely on personal dedication more than exposure, a fact that comes as a shock to some. Each activity has a purpose: to attempt to orient oneself to the place (and your place in it) almost zealously. However, group members may have a goal to go elsewhere later, or to return home, or just not stay in one place for a very long time at all, and all the verve of being a Group One member can often hasten burnout.

Group Two: them being where you are is not their first time abroad; perhaps they've been there, or just in a not-home place, for a long time, and aren't going anywhere anytime soon. My expat boss has a local partner and a child. A number of my expat colleagues are married to locals and have kids and are totally integrated into local life. They understand local ways, but will criticize them when they think they are ridiculous or annoying or inconvenient. They help Group One people find essential things, like trusted doctors or new apartments. They cook local food, have adjusted to many cultural norms, and have invested the time and energy not necessarily in an especially wide range of local experiences, but in deepening what they know. They do normal, everyday things: drop kids off for school, take painting lessons, leave town (or not!) for vacations, waste time doing random time-wastey stuff online. "Home" and "away" are very difficult to define. Burnout for Group Two folks, I think, is less about "how the place is" and "how I am" and how those things are different than your reactions to the reality of the place and how you manage them.

I've been moving toward being in Group Two for about a year now, and it's nice: I keep thinking, "Aha! Finally! So that's how that works! I get this!". Why the move toward Group Two? It's my first time spending more than a year in the same country since 2005. The newness is gone, the reality is more visible, and it's much easier to navigate everyday life. And, of course, I help newbie Group One folks out whenever I can.

There's no moral judgment implied in being in one group or another, and no specific time-frame - I know people who've been here for two years and they can barely read a restaurant menu or deal with a bus detour, and I know people who've showed up a month before now and who know the place like the back of their hand. People have a foot in one group and a foot in another.

But being caught in-between groups is hard, and it sounds like that's where you are, perhaps. You know a lot, but not enough. You know the frustrations of everyday life but are afraid to criticize the place because it's your dream! There are things which were great for you and your body and mind and soul at home which are (seemingly) irreplaceable there, but "you don't want to dwell on the past". This conflict - liking the place but being afraid to manage your discontent with some aspects of it - can blow up in your face, or simmer right below the surface of every interaction and conversation, or be channeled into positive avenues for yourself and those around you in the host culture.

My recommendations:

- Stop seeing the place as a place you dreamed about or a place better than home. Because it isn't. It's a place where people break their legs, get drunk, embarrass themselves in front of the boss. It's a place where you find stuff on sale at the supermarket, forget your glasses, and waste the entire first day of your Christmas vacation from school in your pajamas eating local paté and surfing the internet because it's -11°C outside and you cannot be bothered to even wander down the street for some phone credit. You are allowed to hate the traffic and the lines and the smog (or whatever bothers you about the place). It's actually local to complain!

- Decouple "abroad" from "Buenos Aires", or wherever you are. "Abroad" is only useful if you want to be dualistic, black-and-white, binary. Sure, BA is different from LA or Chicago or Boise, Idaho - but those places are just as different from each other as our new homes are from places in the States. Stop comparing and notice what makes BA unique and incomparable.

- Take care of yourself. Work out, walk. Cook for yourself. Make sure your laundry gets done, that your living space is tidy and organized. It helps you have time for other stuff.

- Accept that the burden of contacting home falls to you, and that you'll have to work harder to keep in contact with friends. Facebook is a godsend. Skype saves my sanity.

- Get to know your neighbors. Say hello, bake them a little something from home and bring it over. Make sure gatherings at your place (if you want to meet new people, don't just attend parties: host them!) include them, if that's the done thing there. Say yes to invitations you get for dinner, to come look at old family photos, to head out to someone's beach house. Meet Grandma and mine her for her recipes and her stories.

- Read up on local history and culture. Pretend you're getting a degree in Buenos Aires Studies. Get a local library card.

- Accept that it doesn't have to end on the terms you set out before, plane tickets be damned. I never thought I'd be living where I am now (or where I've been before), for this long. This was not the plan. But really: who follows a plan? You may meet someone special. You may get an amazing job. You don't know, and mentally, your brain isn't going to ever want to fit "Buenos Aires" into a discrete time period. You'll go back, or maybe you'll never leave. There may stop being an "away" and "home". You can inhabit a hundred places in your mind and almost as many in the real world.

Finally, remember that love crosses oceans: your physical absence is, well, kind of immaterial. Your folks think about you every day, perhaps with envy, almost always with pride and hope: you're doing a very, very cool thing! You are bragged about without you even knowing. People your folks know talk about you. You living there helps your cousin in high school convince his parents to let him go on the school trip to France. And if you get a nice enough apartment or kick out the housemates for a week, maybe next year the family Christmas will be under a blazing Argentine sun with chimichurri sauce basting the turkey.

¡Feliz navidad!
posted by mdonley at 7:00 PM on December 21, 2009 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I lived abroad for most of the last ten years. I was shocked when I got homesick my first Christmas away from home because I was in the exact opposite situation-- I'd always wanted an excuse to skip Christmas with my crazy family, there wasn't much to feel nostalgic for. But what there was to miss, surprisingly, I intensely longed for.

Most of what I was going to say has already been said, but two additional, practical suggestions: 1) Journal. I found that whenever I was feeling isolated, writing about it really helped take the edge off, and it also fills the stretches of time you haven't scheduled with activities. I ended up doing this online, in a password-protected blog read by a few close friends, which also helped keep us close across a 14-hour time difference. However you do it, a bonus is that you end up with a record, albeit an angsty one, of your time there. 2) Plan an adventure. The longer I lived abroad, when I would hit a stretch like this, I would know it was time to do the opposite of what I was feeling-- strike out alone, take a short trip, shake up the routine, and remind myself of the "fun adventure/new things" part of living abroad that is really great.
posted by neko75 at 8:00 PM on December 21, 2009

Best answer: You´ll be fine. Tough it out, cry as much as you need to and keep busy.

Get some projects going, use the internet a lot to stay in touch. Deepen your friendships with the people you are meeting there. Read books in Spanish. Communicating in a 2nd language and at the same time adapting to a new culture is totally exhausting. There are so many psychological adjustments to make - everything was so new and stimulating at first that you may not have realized how hard it all is...

I came here to improve my Spanish and to live internationally for awhile. (So that I will have had that life experience.) When I'm feeling up, I have the strength to keep pushing on towards those goals but when I'm down, I don't care anymore.

Getting through this emotional upheaval is a huge part of that life experience you were seeking. A year later you will be very happy with yourself for having stuck it out. You will also know if it's time to go home, or try another year (or two).

(or seven!)
posted by Locochona at 8:01 PM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Cut yourself some slack. Just because you chose to do something you really, really wanted and looked forward to doesn't mean it isn't allowed to have moments of massive suck. (Cf. marriage.)

The fact it's Christmas makes it harder. But Christmas will pass. And then it will get better.

Also, long perspective: what would you rather have memories of in ten years - this one Christmas at home, or a year in Argentina?
posted by DarlingBri at 8:09 PM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I sympathize with you. I've been living in Vienna for 9 years and this will be my second Christmas here (rather than at home with my family). It's definitely not easy at times.

First, I suggest that you try to make it through the holidays, and that your homesickness will most likely improve after a short time. Here's a practical tip: if you haven't already, join and check out the Buenos Aires group there. They've got a few parties lined up over the holidays. Here's a quote from one party announcement:
"Hi guys!....
Because there will be lots of travelers around Bs As on X-mas and we dont want they feel alone and sad in that day!"
Sounds like it's just up your alley (and also shows that you're not the only one suffering from homesickness). Even if you're not interested in couch surfing, per se, I've found that the people who are members of that group tend to be very open and accepting, and in the more active cities, they've always got something going on.

Once you've made it over the holidays hump, try to keep busy. Do you enjoy photography? Do you have a blog? If so, get out and do some walking tours of your city. Take some photos and blog about what you see. That helped me get through a particularly rough spot a few years ago. I'd suggest that you wait until the end of February and reevaluate your feelings about being away from home. A year is really not that long, if you can get yourself over a couple of rough spots along the way.

Have fun, good luck, merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
posted by syzygy at 2:14 AM on December 22, 2009

You can't be that homesick / depressed or not for that long at least. you've only been there 3 months!

I've just had a pretty depressing 3-6 month period living alone in London. 2 years into my Expat existence.

are you having a 'bad week'? i've had loads of them. they pass. toughen up. its normal.
posted by mary8nne at 4:49 AM on December 22, 2009

It's definitely a normal stage of culture shock. It'll pass. When I studied abroad, going to American eateries like Burger King or Pizza Hut really helped (despite the fact that I normally have no desire to eat fast food). Also, going to see or renting an English-language movie (not dubbed into Spanish) is a nice break from the all-Spanish-all-the-time thing. I found that embracing my desire to connect with home, rather than getting mad at myself for feeling homesick, helped me get past it.
posted by melissasaurus at 7:01 AM on December 22, 2009

This is normal and will pass, and you will definitely regret it later if you end up cutting your travel short because of it.
posted by eas98 at 7:25 AM on December 22, 2009

Best answer: I spent about eight months abroad in France last year and didn't go home for Christmas. Yes, it was pretty tough at points. You know what? Homesickness is very, very common, as reiterated above. And this year, now that I'm back home in the states, I find myself getting very nostalgic for the rituals and good times I had in France during the holidays. It can go both ways.

My only practical advice to add/second is do not stay in your house/apartment/home excessively. I did get depressed and missed my family. My tendency was to stay in my room, reading or internet-surfing. The lack of exposure to sunlight and other people only increased my sadness. Even if having a cup of coffee at a cafe by yourself sounds like a loner activity, it is MUCH better than sitting alone and feeling depressed.
posted by fantine at 8:49 AM on December 22, 2009

Response by poster: Wow. There is so much encouragement and support here, and I can't tell you how much it helped me as I read through it last night and today. Just to hear so many people say that this is normal, that you've been there before and it gets better... it has helped me feel a lot better. Reading so many concrete suggestions about what I can do with myself is great, too.

I am still having my ups and downs, but so far no big downs since I wrote this and read your responses. I got out into the city today and the rest of my days this week are pretty busy, so I hope that I will be able to keep myself in pretty good spirits (or at least moderately stable ones) until the Christmas holiday is past. And if I can't, then I will just let myself have a good cry and try to go easy on myself! I'm going to keep coming back to this page whenever I feel down and I certainly hope this will help people in the future who find themselves going through the same thing.

Again, a really bit THANK YOU to you all. The fact that you took the time to give me a hand, well, I can't find the words to show my appreciation but you've really helped pull me out of the depths a bit. You've given me back some of the motivation and strength that I need if I'm going to get through this and stay here for the next 9 months. (Or whatever!)

Big hugs to everyone! Happy holidays.
posted by inatizzy at 3:32 PM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: PS. syzygy, your couchsurfing suggestion is genius. I had no idea BA had such an amazingly active group! Although I don't know if I can join them for their holiday celebrations, they've got a lot going on otherwise and I just joined a bunch of the BA groups so I can hopefully get out and get involved with them very soon. Thank you for pointing me to such a great resource.
posted by inatizzy at 3:37 PM on December 22, 2009

Best answer: I spent a few years abroad without returning home and I can still remember the sting of homesickness that I felt after a few months. But I had a job and couldn't just up and leave, thank god. I know that had I turned tail and come back home I would still be kicking myself. I toughed it out and after another month or two everything came together, I met people who became my closest friends, and I had the best years of my life.

This is natural and I'd give it at least three more months before making any rash decisions. Homesickness is part of the deal, especially if it's your first time living abroad. But if you can muscle through it you'll be rewarded with an amazing life experience and you'll be that much more eager to try living abroad again somewhere else. And each time you do it you're less and less homesick.

Stay strong and good luck!
posted by fso at 7:19 PM on January 6, 2010

Best answer: And here I am late in this thread...

Six years living in Beijing here, and I've gotta say, I miss home. But y'know, I wouldn't trade what I have, what I've built here, for anything at home. I wouldn't, really. This is mine. This little bubble, this little mixture, this little daub of dudebro Americana on the landscape of an increasingly internationalized and soulless landscape of Beijing (see how I've tapped into the local ennui there?), no place in the world will ever feel more like home to me than this.

One thing that people don't often talk about, but that remains very true for me as an expat, is how much of yourself comes to fill the void of what culture provided for you in the wake of leaving. It's like a boat leaking oil. But imagine you have a net to collect that oil and reprocess it into the fuel for your future existence. You, everything that you appreciate about your own culture, the experiences with mundanity that defined you in your old home, are the pieces of yourself that you'll celebrate and rejoice in and share as the years in your new home go on. At first it will feel like your ego is getting the better of you, but it's not. It's just filling in the blanks with the familiar.

An example? Doritos and root beer. I have a Canadian friend I work out with, and for us, we celebrate milestones and goals and holidays with an A&W and a bag of cool ranch. It's not that that's anything quintessentially North American, but for us two, it's the defining celebration of a day well spent, something new learned, something new figured out. We both liked them at home, and we both prefer local food on a day-to-day basis, but man, getting that dose of English and good ol' North American convenience food, which we both grew up on, that's all the home color we need. The rest of the time, sure, I argue about the latest People's Congress proposals with my father-in-law in Mandarin, I rag on Jackie Chan, and I get down with Carsick Cars (a rockin' local band that's worth checking out wherever you are). But for those couple hours a week when I get to sit down and BS with him about what I've been up to, I feel my Minnesotan roots tapping the soil of home, and I feel good about that.

The quest you're engaging on isn't one of a dream of living abroad. That's what we call it before we set out to do it, but it's not that. It's one of creating a new identity that incorporates the symbols and signatures of a new culture, the ones that fit ourselves, the pieces of this new environment that we appreciate and value based on who we are as individuals. Buenos Aires has a history as a city of culture and literature, doesn't it? Are you a book person? Could that particular facet of where you are become a piece of who you are? I know, for me in Beijing, that it's something I could never do without now that I've experienced it. I love that I can meet artists and writers and musicians in this town, and be a part of their circle without the cultural baggage someone Chinese would have to try to swim through. That's a part of my identity that I couldn't stand to lose now that I have it. I'm culturati. Call me shallow, but I love it.

I share this because I understand homesickness. I found things here that I didn't at home. I found the fascination of a new language, and then the fascination of a new culture, and now, the fascination of new friends and new social circles. And knowing that I would find these things is part of what drove me to continue despite missing my family terribly. I had, I suppose, more of a reason to get away from you, given how messed up my family is. But you know, I've also found a new family here, and I love them just as much as my old family. They matter immensely to me.

The things you miss, the home you crave, the family you love, they will not be the same when you go back. They will remain, but they will be different than your homesick memories paint them. You'll be different too, and you'll wish you could go back and reclaim the path you left. What I want you to know is that you can do either. I think part of the reason homesickness is so daunting is that it strikes at precisely the moment when you realize you can, if you want, create an entirely new life for yourself, and can imagine yourself being okay, without the things that kept you local and American. At the same time, you realize that your old identity, your old paths, will fade into the past and you'll be stranded with what's in your hands now, away from your former support network.

I want you to know that those old connections will never fade, never leave, and never be far away. They only change, while in Argentina, new doors and new places for yourself to grow open up. What you miss now is the same thing you would miss in Buenos Aires if you weren't there. And if you leave, what you'll miss is precisely the opportunity to develop in ways you never could had you stayed home. You should stay, if only to say to yourself that you did, and that you made the best of a new world. Knowing that you can is already a powerful new aspect of yourself that you might not have experienced had you stayed where you were.

You will never integrate "fully". Because you enter without the context Argentinians share, you will integrate in ways different than they ever could. And in doing so, you'll join a new community of Americans who understand homesickness and recreating themselves. And you'll meet that particular community everywhere you go. Couchsurfing is a wonderful example. You're one of us now, and we'll be here for you wherever you go.

Think of it as having children. You'll mourn the loss of your old life of going out whenever you want and doing risky things and not feeling responsible for someone else for awhile, but all the depression and symptoms are documented, as are the rewards, which you can only truly understand if you experience them. You'll experience and feel more than you ever thought possible about yourself if you stay, and your family and friends will always be there, albeit in a changed form. The affection and love they have for you will never disappear. So stay awhile longer and build what you can. You'll thank yourself in the end.
posted by saysthis at 2:12 AM on February 19, 2010 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Hey everyone -- so, it's been a good 8 months since I posted this question. I came across it today while in the middle of something else. It's the first time I saw saysthis's post!

I just wanted to add a little note to the end of this question for anyone who finds this in the future.

I'm still in Buenos Aires and I'm thrilled that I stayed.

The advice that you all were so kind to share helped me immensely. Knowing that the bad feelings were normal, that I wasn't failing, that I could expect it to get better, and that the rewards of sticking it out would be worth it -- those things helped me to stick it out long enough to emerge on the other side and really find a rhythm in my new life. And I'm really glad that I did. When I wrote this post, I was feeling my worst, and acting on those feelings would have been something that I regretted. I knew that when I wrote this, too, in theory - but it was hard to justify it and really believe what the good stuff would be.

So now, in a few weeks, I'll be marking my 1-year anniversary of living in Buenos Aires. I haven't even been back to the US to visit, thanks to the cost of airline tickets. I'm doing all right with that because I've got a life here, now, but I am still looking forward to my first trip back that I've planned for December. :) I found a job in a field that I'm interested in so now I've got a work visa, which means that I'm not even a tourist anymore! I have a few friends (some thanks to Couch Surfing! ;), nice roommates, a boyfriend, and I'm feeling much more a part of the community, especially now that the language is taking hold in me.

I still miss home and I think I will move back within a year or so -- I never saw myself staying abroad forever, and if anything, living here has proven to me just how much I want to settle down near my family -- but I would definitely consider mine a "success story." And that's such a huge deal! I tackled big challenges, even things I never expected to face, and I've learned a new language, and I have been learning important things about myself along the way. This is an experience that is going to define the rest of my life and I'm grateful to be having it. (Even though I am still looking forward to the day when I feel like I'm "done" and ready to go home, once and for all. :) Thanks again to all of you who helped me stay the path so that it would end up this way. Words can't express how grateful I am!
posted by inatizzy at 6:41 PM on August 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

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