Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

The pains of being abroad

I have been so homesick that it hurt three times in my life.

The first was in Germany when I was 18 and working in a factory for six weeks at the beginning of my gap year. I was staying with a family friend, but two weeks after I arrived, she went back to the UK for the summer, as she did every year, leaving me alone in her house. She’d introduced me to a few people in the tiny Bavarian village she lived in, but it was during the 2003 drought, absurdly hot and with only 30 minutes rain during the whole time I was there, so I didn’t really want to go outside once I got home from work. I stayed in the house as much as I could, and ended up being by myself all the time. The only way I got through the day doing the dullest job I’ve ever done was the thought that at about 6pm every evening I could watch Will and Grace, one of my favourite programmes at the time, plus occasionally being on the same job in the factory as someone my age, who unfortunately lived in a completely different place and was impossible to meet up with after work. On the last weekend I finally did a bit of exploring, visiting Regensburg by myself. I wish I’d discovered I could go off on adventures by myself earlier, but I’ve certainly never forgotten it!

The second time was a few months later, working at a jungle school in a (very) rural village for the second half of a four-month volunteering trip to Borneo. I was there with two other girls my age who had been in the jungle with me. Unfortunately I didn’t get on very well with one of them, and the second one became more and more like the first as our seven weeks in the village went on. They spent all of their time together. I only had 8 hours of teaching a day, and spent a long time planning, but once I did that I didn’t have much to do to fill my time. Instead I shut myself in my room with the fan on (when the electricity generator was working: during school hours and 7-10p.m. every night) and wrote pages and pages in my diary, consisting mostly of lists of things I would do when I got back home, and all of the things I missed. Sometimes I would use my book to try and learn some Bahasa Malay, but I spent very little time with the people in the village unless we were explicitly invited to their houses.

Jungle Tree

The third and final time (I hope) was in Paraguay. I worked there from July 2006 to June 2007 as part of my year abroad from university during my languages degree. I’d decided to go to South America and France, but also need to practise my German. I knew there were a lot of Mennonite and other Germans in Paraguay, so wanted to find a German family to live with. The first person I found fell through in November, and my (very) split shifts meant that I’d had huge trouble making friends beyond the three people I went with, who had all found their own friends by this stage. Skype was only just starting to grow, and I couldn’t really speak to my family much and the bandwidth wasn’t good enough for video. It was the year that facebook was opened out to the world, proving very important to me, but it didn’t really become popular until the end of my time in Paraguay. This was my longest ever period of homesickness, lasting about a month. I was very disillusioned by Paraguay, sad that I wouldn’t be able to go home for Christmas, and feeling incredibly lonely. So what did I do? I stayed at home, cried, and generally felt sorry for myself.

In both Borneo and Paraguay, I managed to turn it around, and ended up crying my eyes out at the end because I didn’t want to leave. In both cases, this was because I found ways to fill my time and crush my homesickness. In Borneo, this was by helping the kids and the other two English teachers at the school to create a snakes and ladders board:

Borneo kids with Snakes and Ladders board

In Paraguay it was by finally finding a German-speaking family, starting classes at the Goethe Institute, and helping to sort out the resources in the school library.

The most important thing, though, was that I had to stop wallowing in the feeling, tell people about it, and go out and do something about it. Since then I have never really felt homesick for more than a day at a time. It’s never possible to completely avoid the feeling, especially if things aren’t going well at home, and you can’t be there, but you can reduce the likelihood of it striking. Remember: you are not alone, you are not the only person who feels/has felt like this, and you are not impinging on other people if you tell them how you’re feeling. Good luck!

This post was inspired by Elly Setterfield’s post Teaching English Abroad: What if I hate it? which is full of great advice for new teachers. I highly recommend reading her blog. Thanks Elly!

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Comments on: "The pains of being abroad" (2)

  1. That Snakes and Ladders board looks really cool! I’ve certainly felt the homesickness you describe, especially when you don’t get on with your co-workers which are often the only source of friends in a foreign country, but luckily in the age of Internet there are now ways to quickly find new friends, both fellow foreigners and locals. I’ve had particularly positive experience with meetup.com and couchsurfing.com and some of my friends swear by Internations!

    Like

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