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Student Reflections

Feeling at Home in a Foreign Country

Cameron Clark
September 26, 2019

You know that feeling, when you’re at home, wrapped up in a bundle of blankets, with absolutely nothing to do, and the muted pitter-patter of rain on your bedroom window? Or when you’re lying in the grass on a warm, summer day with your friends, not worried about anything except enjoying this moment, right now, almost as if the future would never actually come? Maybe this is how you feel right now, or perhaps these feelings are mostly in your memories, but many of us yearn for these times, this feeling of ‘at home-ness.’ Some days these moments are easy to achieve; more often, however, I find myself wondering when I will feel like that again. When will I finally feel at home again? It can sometimes seem like the answer is never. You will never truly be home, never again understand the dreamy, ignorant bliss of childhood that was once so commonplace. Yet, when we do at last realize these dreams, they feel like they might just last forever.

Of course, they don’t – nothing does. And if they did, we might find that they aren’t so special at all, that the rarity of these little windows of perfection is exactly what makes them so significant. And eventually, most of us can come to terms with that. But the hardest times come when they are the rarest, and when you’re 10,000 miles away from home, they can feel especially uncommon. This was something that I didn’t quite understand before I left home for the first time. I mean, before I really left home for the first time, to live so far away that I couldn’t simply come home for the weekends, or if I wanted to see my childhood friends, or if I just missed that wonderful familiarity. In fact, the first thought that crossed my mind when I stepped off the plane was what the hell are you doing? And that thought didn’t fade – at least, not so fast as I would have liked.

The first weeks that you spend living abroad are not going to be easy. You’re going to be exhausted, you’re going to feel lost, and you’re probably not going to have many friends right off the bat. Small differences in the way that things are done are going to both amaze and estrange you. There’s such an incredible variety of cultures in our world that it truly can feel like you’re in another one at times. When I arrived in Sydney, I already had some experience living abroad under my belt, as I had done a global co-op in Mongolia the very same year. I thought I would be invincible this time; of course, I am “vincible”, just like the rest of us. Again, my first thought when I stepped off the plane was what the hell are you doing? Again, I was exhausted, lost, and alone; and yet again, I craved to feel at home.

The hardest thing to do when you’re abroad is to realize that these cravings aren’t going to get you anywhere. Short of hopping on the next flight home, there’s nothing you can do to satisfy them. The one thing that you can do is to make a new home for yourself, and I feel that it’s important to know the difference between a house and a home. A house is simply a place, nothing more. It’s where you live. And maybe you live in an apartment, or a dormitory, or a cave with a pack of wolves – but for all intents and purposes, we can think of this place as your house. Home, on the other hand, is a feeling, and not necessarily a place. It’s when you feel safe, when you aren’t afraid to be yourself, when you can forget about the outside world and be content to stay where you are for a while. You can feel completely at home anywhere in the world, as long as those criteria are met. And so, meeting them is the ultimate goal when you’re living somewhere new.

Fortunately, there are a few things that you can do to make this goal somewhat more achievable – to trick yourself into believing that you are at home until you truly feel that way. For example, decorate your living space with pictures of your friends and family, or a poster for your favorite band, anything that reminds you of simpler times: you can spend the vast majority of your time outside, exploring and learning about the new world around you, but coming home to a dreary, colorless box can make anyone feel imprisoned. Another important thing is to force yourself out of your comfort zone and start making friends. For many (including myself) this is no easy feat, but you have to do it, unless you’d prefer to be alone for your entire trip. Whether you’re on a global co-op or a study abroad, there will be places you can go to achieve this feat; they’ll vary depending on where you go, but there are always others out there looking for friendship. When I was in Mongolia, for example, I found that the best place to socialize (outside of my office) was the pub! Mongolians love to drink, just like the rest of us, and it tends to make them even more friendly – there also weren’t very many parks, or pools, or other places that people might meet, which seriously narrowed down my choices. Sydney, on the other hand – and especially the University of Sydney – is full of youth: cultural events, markets, concerts, and clubs are all over the place! Attend enough of these events and you’re sure to start making friends. Of course, being in classes again helped as well. Most everybody likes to have study buddies, and being in the same class as a person immediately gives you something in common.

Last and most important, if you’re feeling homesick, remember that you’re perfectly allowed to feel that way. Most people have never lived so far from home, it’s simply not in our nature to be separated from our ‘tribe’ (i.e. our loved ones) for so long. So please, call your parents – they miss you. So do your friends, siblings, and dogs. Having a brief connection with somebody important from back home can help to quell your homesickness and remind you that it’ll all still be there when you get back. But don’t forget to explore! After all, that’s what this is all about, right?