Homesickness, and the price we pay to be expats

I read an article a couple months back in which an Australian living abroad talked about how to deal with homesickness as an adult. As an Australian who has spent most of my adult life overseas, there was a lot in it I related to! Author Kate Leaver beautifully captures the tension of loving the life I live, while still missing the things I’ve left behind.

I am settled here, in my new London life. I am contentedly nuzzled into life and love and work here. And yet – and yet! – I find myself, recently, feeling homesick. Some days, I can feel those 12,500 kilometres in my heart. Especially when something happens to someone I love back home

She also articulated something I hadn’t thought through properly before: “homesickness feels kind of silly as an adult. It seems like the kind of thing you grow out of, the kind of thing you leave behind in childhood“.

Wow – reading that I felt the truth of it. It’s hard to leave space to accept and process our homesickness when we feel somehow weak or childish for feeling that way.

She goes on to share advice from psychologist Doctor Perpetua Neo. The advice she gives is simple but solid: be kind to yourself, get involved in life where you live. These are, simply stated, two of the six tips for transition which I offer in seminars I teach. This advice applies to expats generally but also the repats – those of us who go through the wringer of returning to a ‘home’ country after an extended period abroad. It applies to the person who leaves, and applies to the person who stays.

The price we pay

There’s one thing I’d add, though, when it comes to feeling homesick as an adult expatriate: this is part of the price tag.

By that I mean, recognise that by living overseas you pay a real price, and keep choosing to pay it. Take the time to acknowledge what you lose by being far away – those losses are real! But don’t stop there. Remember why you chose to be where you are. Meditate on all the things you gain, think about the life you have, think about what you’d lose if you weren’t where you are. Yes, living overseas comes with a cost – but we pay that price because we gain something else in return. Say to yourself “knowing this is the price I must pay to gain all these things, will I willingly pay it?”

(Years ago I wrote about learning this myself in my late twenties, as I wrestled with my changing accent.)

There are two sides to this. First, the cost is real. The fact that I choose to pay the price doesn’t change the fact that it costs me something – something real. In my first years overseas, expressing my sadness at this cost often led to comments from my sisters about how “you chose this!” That was true, but it didn’t change the fact that I was sad about missing this event, or seeing that person. (Strangely enough, those comments stopped after they each moved across the country themselves!) They were right – it was my choice. But my choice came with a cost, and it hurt, even as I chose to pay it.

Secondly, it is a choice, and that reframes the loss and pain of paying the price. I don’t just lose something – I have given up something good (many good things) in order to gain something I have deemed better.

When we hold these two things together – both the reality of the cost, and the reality of my choice to pay it – we can integrate these difficult emotions, and come to a place of peace. A space where feelings are recognised as valid, and given expression, but also seen within the perspective of decisions made for good reasons.

How does this work for TCKs?

One last thing that’s worth mentioning here: this outlines one of the big differences between the experience of adult expatriates and that of Third Culture Kids. A TCK moves overseas due to a parent’s choice, not their own. They don’t have the comfort of knowing they chose this themselves, for a good reason. They may see and understand their parents’ decisions – may even have been consulted in the decision making process. Even when they agree with the decision, however, there is a powerlessness in having had this childhood chosen on their behalf.

That is the reality of all children, really – whether a family chooses to stay in one place or move, both miss out on the other experience. But still, the fact that the power to make the decision rests with parents means that TCKs experience international life differently. They did not choose to pay a price in order to gain something else – growing up overseas is simply the childhood they were presented with. It is their normal.

Click here to read more posts about Third Culture Kids, transition, and expatriate experiences.

7 thoughts on “Homesickness, and the price we pay to be expats

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