Soon after graduation, I moved to the Himalayas for my first job. Everything was supposed to be magic: the mesmerizing snow mountains, the enchanting forests with snow leopards and other beautiful wild animals, the traditional villages and monasteries with kind and content people in their traditional dress.
And yes it was magic. Scenic. Beautiful.
However, during the first month in this new country, I was having the same dream every night: I sat on the plane, looked through the window, and fastened my seat belt, preparing for landing. I was going home.
And every night I woke up again, confused, displaced. It took me a few moments to realize I was in a foreign room, in a bed on the other side of the world.
Every cell in my body wanted to go home.
But I was not supposed to say I was homesick, because I got this ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’. I got the job. I got to live in a little mystical mountain kingdom. Ever since I was a child, I wanted to live here. I should be grateful and happy.
And yet I wanted to go home because the people I loved were not doing well. Some were seriously ill, someone else was dying. Those same people encouraged me to take this dream job anyway. They didn’t want me to sit around at home, doing nothing. “Your life should go on.” Even if that meant we would live five time zones and a two-day flight from home. I could always come back if they felt they would really need me, they said.
The contradiction confused and split me: one part of me badly wanted to be in the Himalayas, the other part felt like I was abandoning my family.
As it turned out, the job was great, the people were sweet and kind, the food was actually tolerable. But at night in my room the heavy feelings awaited me. My body and heart were lethargic, they weighed three times more than during the day. My mind was clouded. It was the opposite of being in love.
Calling home only made things worse. I wanted to say things to untangle the knots in my stomach, to say I felt alone and miserable, that I had made a mistake. I wanted to say this was not a dream job, that the people were mean, that I had all the reasons to leave, and that I would go back home tomorrow. I wanted to say that I would be there to care for those who needed me.
But somehow I couldn’t. They were having a hard time at home, and I should not complain while I pursued my dream, while I was safe and healthy.
I told myself that all had to be magic, that my job had to be a success, that I had to be strong and just go through it. Failure was not on the menu. Feeling homesick was not an option.
I found out that being homesick is much easier when you are a child, when I would sleep at home and nowhere else, with the exception of my granny’s. On school trips I could cry inconsolably at night, I would sob and whine until my school teacher (probably in her own best interest because otherwise I would ruin her good night sleep) would agree to call my parents so that my dad would calm me down on the phone, and assure and re-assure me that all was well, and that in fact, we were only camping one village away.
As a young adult, I tried to get a grip on homesickness. It gets mixed up with sadness, grief, nostalgia, and melancholia. In all of them, I feel the intense loss of not being at home in the world in some way. At the same time, I feel a strong longing for what is no longer – or not yet – there. How can I cope when I lose the people and places I call home? When family members, friends, partners, houses are disappearing?
Return to belonging
Arriving in the Himalaya’s felt as if I had stepped in a social no man’s land. I stepped into an in-between time and space: I had left my old world, but I had not yet arrived in this new world. There was no solid ground to stand on.
In order to feel at home, it helps me to realize that I am made of so many things that are not me. I am made of my family, my friends, my childhood and schooling, the food that I eat, the air I breathe. Buddhists call this interbeing: we are made of non-us elements. If you take any of those elements away, we are no longer ourselves. Homesickness is made of non-homesick elements. Feeling at home in my body, heart and mind, I also need to belong somewhere. Without home, there is piece missing in the puzzle that is me.
So how do I return to belonging? How do I find my way back home after losing it?
In the snowy mountains, it took me time to find my way. I met my first friend, Kesang, on the street during a snowball fight. He had a candy shop and would invite me every day to drink butter tea. His wife would teach me their local language and I would eat cheese curry with his family. I put the horrible tasting Indian sweets in my mouth out of politeness, only to then sneakily spit them out in a napkin. One friend would take me on his hikes and teach me about medicinal plants. I joined another friend on her national radio show as a sidekick.
Slowly these ‘strangers’ would open their doors of kinship to me. Slowly a new sense of belonging and home grew on me. The moment I had new houses to go to, I had new friends to share my heart with, to laugh with, who could see me for who I was, this new country became a little more like home. I was still a foreigner but no longer a stranger.
And even though I still missed my family and friends, I had found some puzzle pieces that helped me feel at home.
I am not sure if we can ‘create’ a home. We definitely cannot buy it. It grows, like trees. We have to plant seeds, and some will turn into seedlings. And when we are uprooted or chopped down, it needs the right conditions to regrow again.
This column was written and recited by Bas
for our Meet-up on Homesickness.
Want to read more about Homesickness?
Read Deval’s story here.