Abroad and Homesick. How Nostalgic are International Students?

An unpleasant, blue feeling creeps into our stomachs and squeezes them tight. Some of us don’t feel like going out anymore, lock themselves up inside four walls and molest Skype for hours. For others, the feeling can partially be soothed by Haribo gummy bears and a lonely cigarette. The tiny little virus, especially contagious around cheerful Christmas time, is called homesickness.  

We, the Cosmopolitans

When going abroad, we often believe that we should feel at home anywhere in the world and that being tied to any particular place is somehow limiting. Moving to a different country is also an escape from things we don’t like about our homeland. Most of the international students I’ve met are overly enthusiastic about backpacking around the world, being in a constant move, living everywhere and nowhere. These convictions are based on a modern worldview that celebrates the independent, mobile individual. But our emotions often tell a different story. Once we unpack our bulky suitcases, we start missing our (imperfect) homes.

Mom’s cooking

Even if you consider yourself as brave as Steve Irwin himself, the feeling of homesickness can strike when least expected, and that’s perfectly normal. Young people, for example first year students, may experience a sense of dread, helplessness, anxiety, or even depression. Those who are homesick often feel they have no control over their environment and that they do not identify themselves with their own situation. It’s as if life is going on without them in it.Emma Greenwood (Northern Ireland) says that homesickness for her is a “feeling of not being complete, as if I am missing something which belongs to me. Sadness is usually involved and sometimes I cry. I think I miss certain degree of safety that I feel when I’m at home.”

A feeling of sadness or nostalgia can be triggered by many things, often by certain sensory impulses like smells of tastes. Emma: “I often wish to smell mom’s home cooking or the fresh air of Ireland. I suppose I miss a lot of the food traditions. In Ireland Sunday dinners are huge late afternoon feasts, whereas in the Netherlands Dutch families often get takeaways on Sundays instead of cooking. I feel that the Dutch don’t have the same appreciation of food. Quite often ingredients are not available here or they are not quite the same.”

Communication problems can also make one feel a bit lonely. “I speak fluent Dutch but I think that everyone can express themselves best in their mother tongue. Even though I speak English in class, I’m not completely comfortable because I adapt my language to be understandable. Only when I speak to my parents or go home I can speak the way I normally do, with my Northern Irish accent,” says Emma. For another student, Jasmina Kostadinova from Bulgaria, it’s also “not being able to understand what people on the streets are saying” that isolates her from her surrounding. And sometimes it’s simply not having people around to talk to. Hug’ Kobain from France says that “during the spring break the flat I live in was quite empty. I was sometimes walking the corridors trying to see who was still there to have a little chat with.”

Reverse Nostalgia

But before you pack your bags and buy a ticket back to your Ithaca, think about things in the Netherlands that you might be missing, like your international friends. “I think I will be completely depressed! I’m really sad that I might not ever see some of my exchange friends again. I will also miss my independence; here I´m meeting new people every day and I am the one leading my life,” says Lara. Some students will also miss everyday comforts that the Netherlands provides: “Efficient public institutions, working bureaucracy, quality education, cycling pads, lack of stress (at least in Tilburg), clean environment, and being in a place where you can concentrate on improving and actually achieving things.”

The Grass is Greener on This Side

Jos Haarbosch, a student psychologist at Tilburg University says that homesickness is “linked to extreme differences that students sometimes experience between the home and the host country, such as work attitude or speed of live.” But what if the lifestyle abroad is simply better? For some students homesickness is not an issue because living in the Netherlands is much more comfortable than at home. One of the students from Romania: I am not moving back home.I really like the Netherlands more. I definitely don’t miss Romanian public institutions, education, daily stress, infernal traffic from Bucharest, lack of bicycle infrastructure, poverty, vulgar/violent people, the mediocre conversations, trash all over the place, public healthcare… List could go on and on.” Even though Emma misses home, there are a few things in Northern Ireland that she definitely doesn’t long for. “Public transport is really bad. It’s also a lot more dangerous to be out on your own at night, especially as a girl. And I definitely don’t miss the rivalry between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland,” she says.

Especially for exchange students, the experience abroad is short, intensive, and mostly positive. The excitement of being away is so overwhelming that there is no room for homesickness. Lara van Schaik from Spain:I feel really comfortable and independent making a lot of good friends, learning Dutch and speaking English! I was just talking with a friend from Argentina about being homesick, and neither of us misses our countries.” The feeling of euphoria takes over especially when studying in Tilburg is one of the first trips abroad ever experienced. Lara has never really been abroad alone, so she feels really good here: “I talk to my family on Skype maximum once a week and I don’t really need to talk with them so much in order to feel loved. I don’t miss my family, friends, routine, university, job, home… nothing! Not a single thought about coming back to Spain crossed my mind since I arrived here in the summer.”

Technology to the Rescue?

Most international students make good use of modern technology to stay in touch with their families. Andre Lot (Brazil/Italy): “I have no problem keeping in touch with people with all the technology available, so that helps a lot. I speak with family and some close friends on Skype and MSN every 10 days or so.” However, seeing your family’s happy faces on your laptop screen will not necessarily make you feel less homesick. Ads from Skype trick us into thinking that “free video calling makes it easy to be together, even when you’re not.” It is a comforting illusion to think that you can stay connected with you family through free Skype calls and regular email updates, whereas the instant availability of online contact can even have negative effects. Frequent Skype calls are comforting, but they are also regular reminders of being away and of events or family occasions that you are missing. So don’t rely too much on technology and try to deal with homesickness in a more constructive way. Student psychologists at Tilburg University advise to “keep in contact with home, but don’t let that contact withdraw you from leading your live in Tilburg. Find out what you miss and go for it over here. Be active: study, socialize and do sports.”

Published: Univers no. 06, December 13 2012