The Presence of Absence
The other night I was tossing and turning at 4:40 am, obsessing about what to say at my sister’s wedding. This might not seem that outlandish – wedding speeches are a big deal – but the odd thing was that I was doing this in a hostel, on my first night in Asia, with earplugs in to stop hearing the critter that was crawling between the walls next to me… I should also mention that the wedding isn’t until August. I can’t explain exactly why this topic and why this timing, but I do know that when I get homesick or anxious or scared about being alone on this trip, I need a link back to my previous life to comfort me, so I naturally chose the next time I know for sure that I’ll be home to focus on.
Asia has been a point of fear for me for a long time. That is why I chose to come here – for the challenge, for the perspective change, and for the self-awareness that inevitably comes from being in a completely foreign situation (literally and figuratively). Anytime I told someone that I was coming here, and doing it alone, the universal reaction was to tell me the worst possible travel horror story they had ever heard. And once they realized what they had done, they would try to change the subject afterwards with, “You are gonna love it!”
I have been asked by many family members and friends – can you write about homesickness? So here it goes. I am terrified. I am excited. I am missing home and Europe like crazy. And I was waiting for the Southeast Asia leg to confirm a lot of my thoughts and feelings. It only took a matter or days to feel ready to write about it.
Whenever I haven’t slept much or am in a new place by myself, I have a bad night. It is just something I know at this point in my trip. Now it’s about getting through these nights and allowing them to be bad, but also moving on from them the next day. I try to find a movie to watch or FaceTime someone who will listen to my worries or I scour the internet trying to distract myself. These days really suck but they also help me process the changes I am going through and adjust to the new setting. They need to happen every now and then.
I can honestly say that whenever I start to feel what might be the beginnings of homesickness, I remember what I was doing last year and, while it wasn’t bad at all, it wasn’t fulfilling or exciting. This awareness brings me back to where I am and confirms it as the right thing for right now, from a career standpoint.
When it comes to people though, things aren’t so cut and dry. I can contact anyone via email, Whatsapp, Facebook, or Skype. I can do it every day if I really want to. But being out of the normal swing of things, I see now how busy my friends and family are. There isn’t that opportunity to catch up for a spontaneous cup of coffee and get to really talk to someone. I miss it and I miss being able to call someone up without coordinating days (or even weeks) beforehand. Plenty of times, I can’t seem to find times to talk to the people I love and we miss each other time and time again. There is also a certain amount of guilt that inevitably catches up with you for missing a birthday or something that you would normally be in attendance for. This part is hard.
Another big hurdle to adjust to is time difference. This has become a whole new reality to deal with in Asia. Logistically, it’s possible for me to talk with people somewhat easily, but the fact that it’s morning for me and night for them means that we are never in the same mindset at the same time. It is really strange how much that matters. It is something I took for granted at home and a constant concern here.
And, as amazing as all the technological options are for keeping in touch these days, the amount of terrible faces I’ve gotten frozen making via Skype and FaceTime is absurd. The amount of dropped calls is frustrating. The unexplainable technical errors are maddening. However, in general, these tools bring me peace of mind. I rarely just talk on the phone, as getting to see someone’s face and reactions across my computer screen makes my day.
The absolute biggest hangup I have with homesickness is not about technology or logistics, it’s worrying that no one else really understands what I am doing. And I say that because there are plenty of days when I don’t even understand what I am doing (a psychiatrist might call this concern “projecting”). One thing I have taken from my time traveling is that my need to be understood is critical to my happiness. Luckily I have a whole band of people I can call to remind me when I get a little unsure or to encourage me when I am caught up in negativity. I stress already about the re-entry into things and wonder how I’ll possibly put this experience into perspective when it ends.
I don’t want to go home yet. I miss it everyday but I know what I have there and it’s a comfort to know I can go back to it. Consequently, things are less clear than ever because I have a whole network in Europe now and even if I do move back to Boston and settle back into a similar lifestyle to what I had before my trip, I will still be missing these new friends. It is a reality of travel, I suppose. You can never have everything.
On the flip side of homesickness, I wonder sometimes what this trip has brought me because of having this space, as well as this open journey. This week alone, I have had two old friends reach out who I haven’t spoken to in years – one to find out where I am heading and try to coordinate a trip together and one to relate her story to a recent post of mine and to give me some words of advice, as she is slightly more settled into her adult life than I am. I also received two extremely thoughtful and heartwarming messages from platonic male travel friends, completely out of the blue. This part of the travel – the people who have come out of nowhere to connect and engage with me in some very personal way – has been the most addictive part. I only hope that everyone gets to feel an outpouring of love like the one I have received (and honestly never expected). It never ceases to surprise me and it keeps me going on the hardest days.
On a lighter note, the best piece of advice I received about how to handle homesickness was from my friend, Kristen. She said, whenever you’re lonely or wanting some familiarity, go to the local Irish or British pub in wherever you are. While I haven’t used it yet, I’m keeping this idea on my back burner for the dark days to come. Most likely on Thanksgiving and Christmas…
Until then, please keep sending along your love and positivity and I will keep sending mine.